Interview: Mavis Staples
Let’s not mince words: Former Staple Singers vocalist and soul/gospel queen Mavis Staples has one of the greatest voices of any living singer regardless of gender or genre, and the extraordinary expressiveness of that voice tumbles out of her even when she talks. When she picks up the phone and says, “Hell-oh,” you know this is the same voice that ignited chart-topping ’70s classics like “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There.” Even at 71 years old, she’s managing to surprise on her unlikely but mutually flattering record with Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy, You Are Not Alone.
eMusic’s Barry Walters ended up tossing aside most of his questions once he got a hint of Mavis’s enthusiasm for recording that album, as well as for the music itself. So instead of a survey of her career from its humble church beginnings in the ’50s with her family to working with Prince in the late ’80s and early ’90s, here is her detailed account of how two people from different cultures and generations came together to create something utterly symbiotic.
I must say it’s an honor to speak to you. Like many people, I was introduced to gospel music by hearing the Staples Singers every day on the radio.
Awww, that’s wonderful. Thank you.
Can you tell me how you came to work with Jeff Tweedy?
Well, we both live here in Chicago, and had a concert together on the north side of Chicago back in ’08. All of the Wilco band came out to the Hideout, a small, funky club on the north side of Chicago. We were doing a concert up there. In fact, it was a live CD we were making. The word had gotten to our managers that he wanted to produce me. He called and asked if we could meet and have lunch, and I chose a restaurant here on the south side in Hyde Park. We sat for about two-and-a-half hours and Jeff Tweedy let me into his life and I did the same. We talked about both of our childhoods and he spoke like you just did. He grew up listening to the Staple Singers and had worked in a record shop, so he had access to a lot of our music, and just loved it. I left that restaurant feeling like I knew Jeff Tweedy. I felt very relaxed with him. He’s very free-spirited and honest. He told me things about his life that he really didn’t have to, but I appreciated it.
He called maybe two weeks later, and asked, “Mavis, would you mind coming to the Wilco loft? I have some songs I’ve chosen that I’d like you to listen to, to see if you’d like to record them for the CD.” I went over and he surprised me with the first two that he played. I said, “Where in the world did you get those songs? Those songs are older than me!” These were the Golden Gate Jubilee Singers, and the songs they recorded were from the early ’30s, “Wonderful Savior” and “Creep Along Moses.” I told him that Mom and Pops used to play those songs for us when we were kids. I never thought I’d be singing these. We pulled about eight songs from those 12. We narrowed them down once we started the session because we decided to do some of my father’s songs, and then Tweedy, of course, he was writin ‘â€” well, he didn’t start writing his songs until the end of the session. The two songs he wrote were the last two we recorded. And actually, when we met to listen to those songs, he said, “Mavis, I’ve had this title in my head, a song I wanna write for you called “You Are Not Alone.” He started talking about the meat of the song, and I got goose bumps from that. I said, “Oh, Tweedy, you gotta write this.” And he did. In fact, I watched him try to write it. He couldn’t finish it. He said, “Mavis, I’m gonna give you a disc to get familiar with the melody and I’ll have the true lyrics for you tomorrow when we come in.” He did, and the session – it just moved me, you know, and I felt his songs fit really good with the other songs that he’d chosen for me to listen to.
Some of these songs, like “Don’t Knock” and “Downward Road,” you’d recorded many, many years ago with the Staple Singers, and “Last Train” is from Allen Toussaint, and “Wrote a Song For Everyone,” that’s by Creedence Clearwater Revival, and yet on your record they all fit together.
Right, right! And they all fit me. He didn’t take me away from my comfort zone. I felt like he’d really studied. Actually (laughs), he had a plan: He took off from where the Staple Singers left off before we signed with Stax Records. When we went with Stax, that was when we had a rhythm section. All of the other stuff we were singing sounds like this record to me. I even told him, “Tweedy, that song ‘Don’t Knock, ‘maybe we should put a guitar solo in there. The song is so short.” He said, “Mavis, no, no, no! Don’t you remember, the Staple Singers never did a song past two-and-a-half, three minutes. The songs are short and that’s what we’re keepin ”em.” (Laughs) I said, “Okay, that’s great.” I feel so much like this record is Mavis when I was singin ‘with my family, when we was just singin ‘with Pops’s guitar. When he asked me about singing some of Pops’s songs, I said, “That would be great! That was the best music of my life. Just singing the harmonies that our father had given us. People had asked me after the We’ll Never Turn Back CD with Ry Cooder, what are you gonna do next? And I’d say, “I don’t have a clue. Maybe I’ll do a country album. Or maybe I’ll go totally back to church.” But this young man, he had the answer, and I’m very grateful to Jeff Tweedy. I love this CD. It was fun doing; it was very refreshing, the Wilco studio. All of the band came through, bringing their babies, their little baby girls, and I love children. It was like a love fest up in there.
I think that comes across in the music.
Well, that’s great.
Was it a challenge for you to sing those songs you sang many years ago? Or did you just say, “Okay, I’m gonna do this â€””
It was a breeze. No challenge whatsoever. I still knew the songs. I still knew the lyrics. It was just a matter of the band. And the best thing he could’ve possibly done was to ask me if the band that I’d been working with for the past few years would play. These guys just fit me perfectly too. Rick Holmstrom, he’d been studying Pops’s guitar for years. I’ve told him sometimes I have to turn around to see if Pops is standing there with him. Jeff Tweedy, he told me that night he came to the Hideout to see that show he came thinking he was gonna use the whole Wilco band on my CD. And he said, “Mavis, this is the band for you! They play around you; they leave you room. This is the band that needs to play with you.” I didn’t know then that he was talking about the record. I told Tweedy once I got to know him better, “You know, I think our managers were in cahoots about this.” (Laughs) My manager, long before this started, said, “What do you think about Jeff Tweedy producing your next album?” I said, “That would be great! But do you think Jeff Tweedy has time to produce a golden girl gospel singer? This guy’s a big rock singer.” And Tweedy told me, “Mavis, you are right. My manager’s been doing the same thing for a long time. They had a plan.” And I said, “I’m glad they did, Tweedy.” In fact, I’ve already told him, “We gotta do this again. Now that we know each other, the next record would be scandalous!” He is so comical.
People wouldn’t expect that from him, given that Wilco’s music is at times so somber and serious.
Yes. Yes! I’ve always listened to them because they remind me of Levon Helm and the Band. I told him when I met him, I said, “Tweedy, your band is different from any of these bands I hear out here. It’s just amazing that we would be sittin ‘there talkin ‘to each other. It was just meant to be.” And he’s so crazy about Pops. I tell him stories about Pops and he just has a little fit. (Laughs) The last song [we did] “Only the Lord Knows,” he’d get on his guitar and he’d be playing and I’d say, “Tweedy, this song reminds me of a song Pops wrote back in the day about Hank Aaron.” ‘Cause Tweedy was singing, “What can you do, what can you do when you can’t trust anybody,” and I said, “Pops, he wrote this song when Hank Aaron hit that number 755 ball to break Babe Ruth’s record, ‘Which a way, which a way, which a way did it go.’” And he jumped up and said, “You mean to tell me that I’m writing a song that sounds like Pops Staples?” He said, “Awww, shucks, I can stick my chest out.” Oh, I just love the songs that he wrote. He said, “Oh Mavis, I’m gonna continue to write for you.” And I said, “You gotta continue to produce me too.” He did so many things on this session that I never in my life had. Who would even think of having a caterer at the studio? He said, “He’s gonna be here every day. Did Ry Cooder do that for you?” (Laughs)
You know that song that we sing a cappella, “Wonderful Savior”? He wanted us to go out into the stairwell to sing. I said, “Tweedy, I’m not goin ‘out there. It’s cold out there, man!” The Wilco studio is on the third floor and it’s ten below zero in Chicago. This was the coldest winter we had in years. He said, “Mavis, the sound would be so â€”” I said, “I ain’t goin’.” He said, “Look, somebody get Mavis a coat, get her a scarf and maybe she’ll sing.” I said, “I’m gonna let you be the boss of this. This better be good!” So all of us go out there, and we’re singing around one microphone. You could actually see the vapor coming from our mouths, I’m telling you. So we came back in, we listened, and the doggone thing sounded so good, I was the first one to say, “Okay, you want us to go back?” Hee-hee-hee-hee! He said, “Nah, Mavis, you don’t have to go back. You nailed it.” I did so many things on this session that were firsts. I’ve never sung a cappella on a record. I’ve never gone into the stairwell. I’ve never had a caterer or a teleprompter. I normally write my lyrics out on the music stand and turning the pages, but he’s got this teleprompter rollin ‘my lyrics. I felt so special.
But you are special, Mavis.
(Laughs) He said, “Mavis, you deserve this.” And I said, “You’ve shown me things here in a session that I have never seen, and you’re making me say that this is my most fun session, this is my best session.” I’ve been singing 60 years, and after all of these years, here comes this young man, and I’m not going to say it’s my last session, I know it’s not my last session, but it’s the last one so far, and I just loved it. I love talking about it.
I can tell!
You can’t stop me from talking! My sister Yvonne, she said, “Mavis, you’re gonna have to calm down.” (Laughs) I said, “Yvonne, I’m just still excited.” And I can talk to Pops. I can tell Pops all about it. I really feel that Pops was there. You know, I felt his presence. And then this song [by Randy Newman], “Losing You.” I told Tweedy, “I love this song, but he’s singing this song to his girlfriend. I’m not courting anybody, so I gotta do this for Pops.”
Barry, my phone is clickin’, so that must be my next interview. I’m sorry, I haven’t given you a lot of time to ask me questions!
I think it’ll work out.
If we didn’t get everything this time, we’ll just have to do it again. Just like Tweedy and I, we’re gonna have to go into the studio again for the next CD. But let it be known that if you wanna talk again, I’d be happy to do that.